Community Supported Gardening and Food Security in Rural Alaska

Final Report for GW07-013

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2007: $10,347.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: University of Alaska Fairbanks
Region: Western
State: Alaska
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
S. Craig Gerlach
University of Alaska Fairbanks
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Project Information

Tradition and Innovation together solving issues of food security

Multiple climatic and socioeconomic drivers have come in recent years to interfere with the ability of Alaska’s ‘bush’ communities to achieve food security with locally available food resources. Livelihoods traditionally centered on the harvest of wild, country foods,
are transitioning to a cash economy, with increasing reliance on industrially produced,
store-bought foods. While commercially available foods provide one measure of food security, availability and quality of these foods is subject to the vagaries and vulnerabilities of a global food system: access is dependent on one’s ability to pay; most importantly, perhaps these foods often do not fulfill many of the roles that country foods have played in these communities and cultures. This transition is having severe consequences for the health of people and viability of rural communities, yet in ways not always tracked by conventional food security methodologies and frameworks. This project investigated community-gardening programs that have emerged in some rural Alaska communities in response to these food insecurities. What we found was that communities are mixing a widely unknown tradition of small-scale gardening with innovative new community-based designs to develop solutions to these food security problems. However, some communities remain constrained from fully developing these programs by institutionalized definitions of 'Alaska Native' culture.


Global environmental change is already having dramatic effects on the people and
places of the north. New environmental trends such as the retreat of seasonal sea ice,
landscape drying, and unprecedented shifts in the changing of the seasons and the timing
of animal migrations, are just a few examples of the problematic environmental changes
being experienced. In rural Alaska, for example, where household livelihoods and community food systems are tightly connected to climate,
weather, and the landscape, these new environmental conditions are interacting with
other contemporary drivers of environmental and socioeconomic change such as
industrial lands development and oil, gas, and minerals mining, to significantly constrain
the use of locally available wild fish and game resources. To maintain some measure of food security, many households are transitioning
away from reliance on the seasonal harvests of wild foods to the consumption of
imported, store-bought foods. But in a global
context of rising food and fuel prices, the costs and challenges of living in rural Alaska
are on the rise and the loss of wild food options has ramifications not just for the
pocketbook, but for individual health and community viability.

Many Native communities are beginning new community gardens, or other community-supported agriculture projects, as one innovative response to these food security problems. This project set out to learn more about the projects, their history in the state, and the challenges that they face given Alaska's unique agricultural history and character.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of this project were as follows. First, we wanted to gain an ethnographic understanding of these new gardening initiatives. This includes understanding where the idea for gardening originated, how well the projects are accepted by the community (buy-in and involvement), and what factors, both social and ecological, influence project success.


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  • S. Craig Gerlach


Materials and methods:

To achieve these objectives, Loring undertook a variety of mixed methods. Archive research was performed at the University of Alaska and the US National Archives in Anchorage to learn more about the history of gardening by these communities. Participant observation and semi-directed interviews were used to learn about both past gardening and the ongoing new projects. A prototype food asset survey instrument was tested in one community. As a part of the participant observation, a test garden was also cultivated for two seasons at the primary site.

Research results and discussion:

Many Native communities also experimented with gardening, complementing their wild food harvests with gardens of vegetables such as potatoes, rutabagas and turnips. As early as the turn of the 20th century, communities in the Yukon Flats Region of Alaska, a vast wetlands basin bounded roughly by the Yukon and Tanana rivers, were experimenting with integrating outpost agriculture into their seasonal round of
subsistence activities. In cooperation with agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Alaska Native Service (ANS), and the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, these communities planted school, family and community gardens, and attempted to develop strategies for planting and garden
management that could complement the timing of the spring trapping season, the summer
fishing season, and the fall hunt.
However, BIA and ANS officials were in general frustrated by the lack of a progressive transition in these communities toward agriculture as a primary subsistence
activity, and as such they considered their garden outreach programs to be a failure. Thus,
this gardening history has been labeled ‘failed development’ by many of its contemporaries, and has either been ignored or described as little more than ‘culture change’ by social scientists since.

Though these gardens never quite lived up to the narrative of economic development pursued by the BIA, there is extensive evidence that they were effectively used to fill an important niche in local foodways, contributing an additional measure of economic diversity and therefore resilience to these communities. True, neither these communities nor their gardens fit the archetype of agriculturalists, but records for the region indicate that communities had been consistently cultivating gardens off and on
since the turn of the century. When asked about life during the early to middle 1900s,
many elders speak fondly about their gardens, recalling time spent with their elders tending to planting and harvesting activities. Indeed potatoes, turnips, and rutabagas, none of which are native to Alaska, are all considered ‘traditional’ foods in the recipes and
menus of the Athabascan potlatch ceremony and favorite home dishes. Understanding the historical importance of these gardens helps us to come to terms with the notion that flexibility and diversity are perhaps far more appropriate benchmarks of what is truly
“customary and traditional” for these communities, who unfortunately remain locked in
to old definitions and stereotypes of hunter-gatherers.

Indeed the Alaska Native communities of the Yukon Circle saw great potential in crop cultivation, and experimented with new and different ways to incorporate the practice into their subsistence strategies and general food system. Though it could not, in either the short or the long term, follow the same developmental path that agriculture had in the lower 48, it could and did meet more “down-to-earth and specific objectives,” as a flexible, supplementary, stabilizing activity that could be easily and informally integrated with the existing local economies. The variability of
participation in gardening was not an indicator of failure, but characteristic of a process
of experimentation that happened outside the dominant narrative of economic development. Cropping was part of a larger picture, incorporated within a set of strategies
that valued diversity over economic growth and followed not just a yearly set of activities
but also multi-year and, in some cases, multi-decadal ecological and climatic cycles. Though the gardening programs did not initiate a radical transformation of lifestyle for these Native communities, gardens were indeed being integrated into the communities’ subsistence strategies, albeit in a nonlinear way that reflected knowledge, awareness and responsiveness to these ecosystem

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:


In Press P.A. Loring and S.C. Gerlach. Food, Culture, and Human Health in Alaska: An integrative health approach to food security. Environmental Science and Policy

2008 P.A. Loring, F.S. Chapin III and S.C. Gerlach. The Services-Oriented Architecture: Ecosystem services as a framework for the diagnosis of outcomes in Social Ecological Systems. Ecosystems. In Press

2007 Daniel White, S.C. Gerlach and Amy C. Tidwell and P.A. Loring. Surface water, arctic peoples, and ecosystems in a changing climate. Environmental Research Letters 2:4

In Review P.A. Loring and S.C. Gerlach. Outpost Agriculture: Food System Innovation in Rural Alaskan Communities. Ethnohistory

In Review P. Loring, SC Gerlach, L. Duffy, A. Wernham, and J. Lewis. Social Epidemiology and Climate Change: Towards an Integrated Approach to Assessing Health Impacts. for Environmental Health Perspectives.


2007, 2008 Outpost Agriculture. A recurring monthly column about agriculture and food in The Ester Republic, a local alternative news-magazine.

2007 The Fireweed. A multi-topic weblog located at


2008 Social Epidemiology and Climate Change. 2008 AAAS Arctic, Fairbanks, AK.

2008 Coming into the Foodshed 2008 AAAS Arctic, Fairbanks, AK

2008 Climate change, surface water, and food security in Alaska. 2008 International Conference on Food Security, Oxford, England.

2008 Scale and food system resilience. A speed talk given at Resilience 2008, Stockholm

2008 Coming to terms with the future of Northern Food Systems. Contributing author to a plenary given at the 2008 Arctic Forum, Washington DC. Presented by S.C. Gerlach

2008 Large Scale Changes, Small-Scale Livelihoods. A Poster displayed at the 2008 Arctic Forum, Washington DC. With S.C. Gerlach and T. Paragi

2007 The Impacts of Climate Change on Rural Food Systems and Health. Presentation made to the 2007 Alaska Health Summit. Anchorage, AK.

2007 Country Foods, Health and Nutrition in Changing Alaskan Ecosystems. Presentation made to the 2nd annual Alaska Biomedical Conference, Fairbanks, AK

2007 Outpost Gardening in Interior Alaska. Paper presented at the 2007 meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Fairbanks, AK.

2007 Climate Change and Rural Alaskan Food Systems. A poster displayed at the 2007 Alaska Forum on the Environment, Anchorage AK.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.